Kurt Hahn – An Incredible Life

[aesop_content color=”#000000″ background=”#ffffff” component_width=”600px” columns=”1″ position=”none” imgrepeat=”no-repeat” disable_bgshading=”off” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]Every United World College student, faculty member, and alumnus should know of Kurt Hahn. Nonetheless, far too many know far too little of our founder. Though often familiar with his most famous quotes and most essential ideas, few know of Hahn’s incredible life. A student myself, I found that exploring the story of our founder reminded me of the significance of our movement. Thus, I came to believe that it would be appropriate to share some bits of his endeavour with the audience of The Flying Dutchman. I thank David Sutcliffe, member of the founding staff of Atlantic College, former head of Atlantic College and founding head of UWC Adriatic, for his book on Kurt Hahn and the founding of the movement for all the details. 
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Born in Berlin in 1886 to a wealthy German industrialist, Kurt Hahn spent most of his childhood in the German metropolis. At the age of 18, Hahn graduated from gymnasium (high school) in 1904. By this time, Hahn already knew that he wanted to become an educator and school reformer, and so his pursuit began. First at the University of Oxford where Hahn pursued a degree in Philosophy and the classics, and then later at universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, Freiburg and Göttingen. A man of intellectual reflection, he published his first novel at the age of 24 pondering over his boyhood coming to an end.
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But Hahn’s life took an unexpected turn when ‘the war to end all wars’ began. Deemed unfit for military service, Hahn served as a specialist for English affairs in the German Foreign Office and the political office of the German High Command during World War 1. While holding these positions, Hahn produced series of commentaries, opinion columns arguing in favour of the democratisation of the German system and for the end of the unnecessary war at acceptable conditions for everyone involved.
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Naturally, he did not go unnoticed, and when Prince Max of Baden was appointed the first parliamentarian Prime Minister, Hahn became his private secretary and closest political advisor. As the war came to an end, Hahn gained an even more substantial political role when he became secretary and ghostwriter for the German minister of Foreign Affairs, Graf Brockdorff-Rantzau. Not much later, Hahn accompanied him to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where he witnessed the creation of the Treaty of Versailles. And so, not long after he had been deemed unfit for military service, Hahn now found himself involved in one of the most epochal events of the 20th century.
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Returning to Germany to realise his educational dreams, Hahn founded Salem International School, and it grew to become the largest and most prominent boarding school in the country. Still politically active, Hahn founded the German Institute of International Affairs, wrote the memoirs of Prince Max of Baden, and voiced his opposition to Hitler and the rise of national socialism. Not shockingly, Hahn was imprisoned as Hitler came to power. However, he was soon released through the intervention of his influential British friend – Premier Minister Ramsay Macdonald. Though no longer behind bars, Hahn was dismissed as principal of Salem, banned from the state of Baden and forced to migrate to the United Kingdom.  
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In the United Kingdom, Hahn did not abandon his aspirations. Here, he founded the British Salem Schools in Gordonstoun which flourished the same way its sister school in Germany had. Reluctant to shy away from the political scene, Hahn kept writing articles and letters in opposition to the appeasement policy of the British government, publicised the horrors of the concentration camps, and organised resistance movements in Germany. He was to make a return to the forefront of politics when he During World War II served as translator and advisor for the British Foreign Office.
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After the war, Hahn founded several boarding schools in the United Kingdom. One of which was named Atlantic College and marked the birth of our movement. Hahn died in Scotland in 1974, 12 years after Atlantic College’s establishment, and was buried in Salem Germany.
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Kurt Hahn’s life is a story of integrity, tenacity, and compassion. He led by personal example, and it is clear that we – his legacy – ought to follow his footsteps. 


Sutcliffe, D. Kurt Hahn and the United World Colleges with Other Founding Figures. David Sutcliffe; First edition, 2013.

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